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  • Fat, Disease, and Health:Female Body and Nation in Okamoto Kanoko’s “Nikutai no shinkyoku”
  • Michiko Suzuki (bio)

“Nikutai no shinkyoku” (The divine comedy of the body, 1937) tells the story of Shigeko, an overweight young woman who leaves her home in Tokyo to undergo a rigorous diet and exercise regimen in a remote mountain village. Although she does not achieve significant results, she attains self-acceptance, and the positive resignification of her body is endorsed by her family, friends, and a marriage proposal from a man in love with her physique.1 Serialized in Mita bungaku (Mita literature) in seven installments between January and December 1937, this text has largely been ignored or described as a “failure.”2 When discussed, it is often read biographically as Okamoto Kanoko’s (1889–1939) affirmation of her own famously plump figure.3 Because Okamoto has been characterized as a narcissist and was known for her elaborate clothes, makeup, and lifestyle, she is often still trivialized despite being a successful and important pure literature (junbungaku) writer.4 To be sure, Okamoto certainly promoted her unique author-image, often by creating powerful female characters reminiscent of herself. Yet her works are more than simple expressions of self-affirmation; they create complex, unexpected meaning by dynamically engaging with the literary and cultural context of the times. [End Page 33]

In the pages that follow, I interpret “The Divine Comedy of the Body” within the context of the late 1930s, highlighting the intricate connection between female body and nation. I present a new analysis of this story by focusing on issues of health and disease, critical motifs overlooked in scholarship to date.5 By examining Shigeko’s body through nationally promoted ideas of physical fitness, eugenics, health, and reproduction, I illuminate the text’s multilayered complexity. This story responds critically to concerns of the times by questioning the relationship between the individual and the social body, and, furthermore, by revealing the instability of interpretation itself in the swiftly changing landscape of late 1930s Japan.

The Meaning of Excess Flesh

As a student in higher girls’ school, Shigeko was featured in magazines as one of the “beautiful young ladies” of Tokyo, but after a sudden weight gain, she describes herself as “drowning in a flood of flesh.”6 When the story opens, she is going to school on the day of her brother’s wedding, so as to spend as little time as possible with relatives certain to comment on her appearance. Although she tries to escape from the gaze of others, which is both censorious and jeering, eyes are everywhere: at home, on the train, and at school. Even her schoolmates tease her, saying that she will be the next to marry, and laughing in unison when one of them says that Shigeko will make an “energetic bride” (ōsei na hanayome, 289). The word “ōsei” can have a positive meaning, as energetic or full of vitality, but as Shigeko interprets it, the word connotes something shameful, signifying excess associated with the flesh, bringing to her mind phrases such as “excessive appetite” (ōsei na shokuyoku) and “lusty XX••••••” (ōsei na XX••••••)—the censored “XX” presumably representing the word seiyoku (sexual desire) (290).7

Shigeko’s body is represented not simply as one aspect of her identity but as something that mirrors her essential character. It is what feminist critic Susan Bordo describes in Unbearable Weight as a signifier of “personal, internal order (or disorder) . . . a symbol for the emotional, moral, or spiritual state of the individual.” Shigeko’s “excess” flesh is associated with insatiability and conveys “moral or personal inadequacy, or lack of will.”8 Her sister constantly laments that “before this, she [Shigeko] used to be a really thin, nice girl (ii ko)” (283). Although Shigeko is the same person as before, for society her weight gain connotes a lack of control and moral failure. Despite her virginal state, her overabundant flesh is not “nice”; Shigeko’s excessive weight and its association with shameful appetites mark her “abnormality” (ijōsa, 284). [End Page 34]

Although critics have overlooked this motif, Shigeko’s “fat” (shibō) or “extra flesh” (zeiniku) is also clearly framed here in terms of...


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pp. 33-49
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